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My Faith: What people talk about before they die
January 28th, 2012
11:00 PM ET

My Faith: What people talk about before they die

Editor's Note: Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and the author of "Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago."

By Kerry Egan, Special to CNN

As a divinity school student, I had just started working as a student chaplain at a cancer hospital when my professor asked me about my work.  I was 26 years old and still learning what a chaplain did.

"I talk to the patients," I told him.

"You talk to patients?  And tell me, what do people who are sick and dying talk to the student chaplain about?" he asked.

I had never considered the question before.  “Well,” I responded slowly, “Mostly we talk about their families.”

“Do you talk about God?

“Umm, not usually.”

“Or their religion?”

“Not so much.”

“The meaning of their lives?”

“Sometimes.”

“And prayer?  Do you lead them in prayer?  Or ritual?”

“Well,” I hesitated.  “Sometimes.  But not usually, not really.”

I felt derision creeping into the professor's voice.  “So you just visit people and talk about their families?”

“Well, they talk.  I mostly listen.”

“Huh.”  He leaned back in his chair.

A week later, in the middle of a lecture in this professor's packed class, he started to tell a story about a student he once met who was a chaplain intern at a hospital.

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“And I asked her, 'What exactly do you do as a chaplain?'  And she replied, 'Well, I talk to people about their families.'” He paused for effect. “And that was this student's understanding of  faith!  That was as deep as this person's spiritual life went!  Talking about other people's families!”

The students laughed at the shallowness of the silly student.  The professor was on a roll.

“And I thought to myself,” he continued, “that if I was ever sick in the hospital, if I was ever dying, that the last person I would ever want to see is some Harvard Divinity School student chaplain wanting to talk to me about my family.”

My body went numb with shame.  At the time I thought that maybe, if I was a better chaplain, I would know how to talk to people about big spiritual questions.  Maybe if dying people met with a good, experienced chaplain they would talk about God, I thought.

Today, 13 years later, I am a hospice chaplain.  I visit people who are dying in their homes, in hospitals, in nursing homes.   And if you were to ask me the same question - What do people who are sick and dying talk about with the chaplain?  - I, without hesitation or uncertainty, would give you the same answer. Mostly, they talk about their families: about their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters.

They talk about the love they felt, and the love they gave.  Often they talk about love they did not receive, or the love they did not know how to offer, the love they withheld, or maybe never felt for the ones they should have loved unconditionally.

They talk about how they learned what love is, and what it is not.    And sometimes, when they are actively dying, fluid gurgling in their throats, they reach their hands out to things I cannot see and they call out to their parents:  Mama, Daddy, Mother.

What I did not understand when I was a student then, and what I would explain to that professor now, is that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God.  That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives.  That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.

We don't live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories.  We live our lives in our families:  the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends.

This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, this is where our purpose becomes clear.

Family is where we first experience love and where we first give it.  It's probably the first place we've been hurt by someone we love, and hopefully the place we learn that love can overcome even the most painful rejection.

This crucible of love is where we start to ask those big spiritual questions, and ultimately where they end.

I have seen such expressions of love:  A husband gently washing his wife's face with a cool washcloth, cupping the back of her bald head in his hand to get to the nape of her neck, because she is too weak to lift it from the pillow. A daughter spooning pudding into the mouth of her mother, a woman who has not recognized her for years.

A wife arranging the pillow under the head of her husband's no-longer-breathing body as she helps the undertaker lift him onto the waiting stretcher.

We don't learn the meaning of our lives by discussing it.  It's not to be found in books or lecture halls or even churches or synagogues or mosques.  It's discovered through these actions of love.

If God is love, and we believe that to be true, then we learn about God when we learn about love. The first, and usually the last, classroom of love is the family.

Sometimes that love is not only imperfect, it seems to be missing entirely.  Monstrous things can happen in families.  Too often, more often than I want to believe possible, patients tell me what it feels like when the person you love beats you or rapes you.  They tell me what it feels like to know that you are utterly unwanted by your parents.  They tell me what it feels like to be the target of someone's rage.   They tell me what it feels like to know that you abandoned your children, or that your drinking destroyed your family, or that you failed to care for those who needed you.

Even in these cases, I am amazed at the strength of the human soul.  People who did not know love in their families know that they should have been loved.  They somehow know what was missing, and what they deserved as children and adults.

When the love is imperfect, or a family is destructive, something else can be learned:  forgiveness.  The spiritual work of being human is learning how to love and how to forgive.

We don’t have to use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do. We should learn from those who are dying that the best way to teach our children about God is by loving each other wholly and forgiving each other fully - just as each of us longs to be loved and forgiven by our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kerry Egan.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Death

soundoff (4,494 Responses)
  1. mujib

    God should be loved for God's own sake,not out of fear or reward.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  2. Answer

    There is always the need for a person (who is facing death) to satisfy themselves in the context of "you have lived out a good and decent life". To have it affirmed by others around them – that "you" have indeed lived purely and justly is just a good gesture of respect. Any decent person will let their family members be sent off this life with those assurances.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  3. Not so hard to figure out.

    She hit the nail on the head. Micah says "What does the Lord ask of you, but to love kindness, and to do justice, and walk humbly with your God?" Knowing that you soon will die has a marvelous way of focusing the mind on what is important. And what is important to any of us but our family, or our children, or a wrong never righted? Being able to express these final thoughts helps the soul, and listening while someone is expressing these things is kind and just. Who could criticize this gift she brings?

    More power to her.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  4. Suzi McCoy

    When an article brings me to tears, I know I have been profoundly touched deep in my heart. The article was full of compassion and tenderness. The greatest act of love is, truly, to listen.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  5. dougaussie

    i would like if i was dying to be able to link up on a blog on the internet and speak to other dying people, I'd say things like :" so what are you doing saturday night?" and they reply;" i'll be dead", okay well how about monday?" "dead". And if you get really angry you couldn't say: " i wish you were dead" cause you know they soon will be. Really you need the funniest jokes of all time to take around with you and politely ask dying people if you could tell them some jokes..i'd rather go out with a smile on my face.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  6. Bonnie

    My husband died 6 days ago. You have written a lovely and timely article, he would have welcomed your visit. I hope your professor is the one who is numb with shame, it is obvious his brain has been numb for quite some time. I am sure your visits bring comfort and peace to those who are dying and want to express their thoughts, that sometimes they cannot express to their loved ones. You Rock, Kerry. Keep on listening. It makes a big difference.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  7. kola1971

    This article is very shallow, i agree with her professor. Love in and for our families is important,but, never more important than the love of God in Christ. Jesus died for our sins it is imperative that we repent and turn to him.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • rick

      love for your family and friends always trumps translated, edited bronze age writings

      January 29, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Kunst

      How shallow you are. Jesus would not agree with you, but he would forgive you your lack of understanding.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • rick

      who is that directed at?

      January 29, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • kabe

      This is why people are turned off to religious fundamentalists. I pitty that you just missed the entire point of the story.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • Turtle

      a

      January 29, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • Turtle

      Not everyone believes in Jesus as god. Have respect for them.
      And Jesus isn't more important than people.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • careader

      this is such an ignorant, shallow comment of a religion fanatic.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  8. Michael

    This is the perfect timing for me to read this article. Thank you.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • rick

      i hope it brought you peace

      January 29, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  9. mujib

    One saint says O God! If I worship you for fear of hell,burn me in hell.If I worship you in hope of paradise,exclude me
    from paradise But if I worship you for your Own sake,grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  10. Grandma Carol

    As I read this very well-written by a Chaplin who DOES really 'get it'!, I was reminded of how death and birth are nearly the same. At birth, the child is greeted with great joy and love, but the womb is left empty and perhaps, even sad – who knows? At death, the person leaving us is also greeted with great joy and love, but WE are left empty and definitely sad. Having been with people in both situations, I have come to believe that each person dies in the way they and their God choose. The living have no say in it, except to provide comfort and the ability to listen and learn. I was well trained as a Childbirth Educator and I worked with pregnant women and their partners for 20 years. Initially, we were taught to teach in a fairly rigid way – 'when you are this far dilated, this is how you breathe. When you are pushing your child out into the world, this is how you push, yada, yada, yada . . .' These couples who came to my classes occasionally invited me to their births where I was a back-up support person and chief photographer. Watching women go through labor taught me so much more than I ever learned in a class, workshop or conference. EACH woman did what her body told her to do and very often, my 'instructions' in class were never used at all. I saw women swear through each contraction near the end of labor. One woman insisted her husband sing Christmas Carols to her with each contraction – no matter that it was in April! Another just let her body do the work in needed to do to birth her baby, and she stayed calm and focused and didn't really want to be touched. How each woman went through labor and birth were just as unique as watching someone dying. They 'do it' their way as well, regardless of what they may have read or learned or witnessed during their lives. You can actually watch a loved one begin to loosen the ties they have on earth and start stepping over the curb that leads them into the next world, however they perceive it. Both birth and death are amazing transitions and it has been my blessing to have been at both. Thank you, Kerry for writing this article and BOO! to the professor and all his ignorance! I'm so glad he didn't chase you away from your calling. You were clearly meant to be just where you are!

    January 29, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Paige

      Well said Carol !

      January 29, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • lisa

      I understand your article Kerry and how family can be and should be a support in birth, in living and in death, however so many people on this earth do not get to experience that....so many times families are torn apart or kids are abandoned and marriages ruined by one thing or another, so we must realize who gave us life, what purpose he gave us life for! That is to find him, to know him and learn to Love through him, and ultimately to Live with him in eternity.....this person is our creator, our savior and he who died to give us that hope....Jesus! When you have Jesus...you have family, you have Love and you have hope! You also have forgiveness if you give him your life and trust in him...that is our purpose in this life....to know him and to follow in his footsteps that will bring us to that final reward to spend eternity with him and hopefully our family members...God be with you Kerry and hopefully you will come to see this as you move on in your career....you professor was right! And "MOM" your statement was beautiful too! You have been blessed to see life start and life end, but the most important thing is to see life continue at the end of this journey on earth, and the only way that can happen is to put your faith and trust in Jesus who created you and at that moment you step off that curb into the next life, it will be holding Jesus' hand and smiling into his face....blessings to both of you.... I had a hard time loving because of pain and hurt in my life....from none other than my family...but I asked God to allow me to see them through his eyes....that helped me pick up the pieces...hand them to Jesus and allow him to lead me and guide my way to him....that is the only hope of life we have. John 14:6 – I am the way, the truth and the life...no man comes to the father except through me....Romans 3:23...for all have sinned and fall short of God's glory....Romans 10:8-9...Confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus and Believe in thine heart that God has raised him from the dead and you will be saved! You will gain eternity!....may God be with you both in your journeys to him!!!

      January 29, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  11. A Mom

    This article is truly the meaning of christianity. My daughter's father passed away from pancreatic cancer 2 years ago when she was 16. He had a tumultuous relationship with his only child but as he was dying he seamed to be able to express the love he had for her without the animosity and anger he had toward all his three ex-wifes. Unfortunately he had a disagreement with her just before his diagnosis and he "disowned" her in his will which his 4th wife fully enforced. She has not even been able to receive any photos of him and it took a friend to find out where she put his ashes. But she is a very strong and loved child and she has forgiven him and still grieves for him. She knows she is loved.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • The Big Fat One

      How is this in any way the true meaning of christianity? The true meaning of Christianity is that everyone is bound for eternal suffering unless they submit to Jesus. It's right in the bible, read it.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Anne

      Chist said love one another, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, love your neighbor as yourself. I never read where he said suffer.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  12. MHS

    I suppose it is too much to hpe for that a) your so called professor saw this article, and b) that CNN gives you permanent space on its web site so you can continue to write with such clarity and beauty on these and other human topics.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  13. Staring Horse with Tongue Sticking Out

    Please just shut my eyes when I die so I can stop staring and go to horsey heaven.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Tommy DeVito

      fu glue factory

      January 29, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  14. Rahul

    Compassionate listening is a spiritual blessing–in any religion.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  15. Walker

    Kerry, I'm an Atheist, but you would be welcome at my deathbed. My entire life is about those who I love, and have loved, and about family. I don't want someone trying to convince me of something I choose not to accept. I want my last moments of existence to be happy ones.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  16. Nyree

    As I age, I mature, and maturing in love is what I am most grateful for. Everyday I am learning to love as Jesus Christ loved, and not as I, or others think we should love. Family is indeed is the first and last teacher of love. Once we realize this we will have less fears of loving and openly embrace it. Good, Bad, and Indifferent!

    January 29, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  17. Laura

    Beautiful! I really loved this article. Thank you!

    January 29, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  18. slickmissy

    That is one of the most beatiful article I have ever read.....Thank you!

    January 29, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  19. Tony

    "We don’t have to use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do. We should learn from those who are dying that the best way to teach our children about God is by loving each other wholly and forgiving each other fully – just as each of us longs to be loved and forgiven by our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters." Excellent. And it works very well without God.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  20. PoBoy

    Very touching and timely article. One of the few I've read that actually made sense and is worthy of more thoughtful consideration and discussion. I'm a Christian, and all too often I get upset with other Christians who believe that you have to wear your Christianity on your sleeve and constantly talk about it to others. If you live Christ-like you don't have to say a word, and people will know that you're a child of God.

    January 29, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • Staring Horse with Tongue Sticking Out

      Poboy
      What if you live Christ-like and you are an Athiest? Will people just wrongly assume you are a child of God?

      January 29, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Beth

      Poboy, thank you for sharing your life beliefs. I feel as you do that if we live as Christ-like as is possible our beliefs will be known. I come from a strange family..one brother that was so "born again" that he denounced our mentally ill younger brother as being "full of Satan"...this hurt my younger brother and he took his own life. The holier than thou brother did not even acknowledge the death and has decided we are not Christian enough for him. I prefer to live as you do...I have no right to comment on anyone else's relationship with God.

      January 29, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.